OPINION

Birth of a Salesman

When the sales team operates with urgency, the soul of a company is alive, thriving and growing. The sales department is the company’s heartbeat and is absolutely necessary to create a sense of purpose and maintain a constant focus on delivering value to customers.

Great salespeople are constantly transforming companies by bringing the voice of the customer into the organization. Many companies don’t want to hear the voice of the customer, though. They fear it.

Their logic is that it is better to have no news than bad news, and if the voice of the customer were captured, it could mean that processes, people and strategies would have to change.

By bringing the voice of the customer into their companies, salespeople send the message that there is always room for improvement in processes, people, products and strategies. Squelching this voice cripples a company and eventually will silence it at the core.

Change is painful, yet critical, for companies to survive, and this fact speaks volumes as to why the sales department should never give up its role as an agent of change. Without hearing the voice of the customer, companies can get lost in a hurry, becoming too inwardly focused — serving themselves and dodging accountability, instead of aligning strategies to rapidly evolving customer needs.

Accountable Agents of Change

In an era when so many managers in companies are dodging responsibility and don’t want to be held accountable — either for more headcount or better results — an energetic sales team can be a counterweight. With the exponential growth of analytics, it’s possible for sales managers to slice and dice data to thoroughly analyze salespeoples’ performances. With so many running from accountability in organizations, sales professionals are more accountable for their performances than ever.

In this era of instant analytics, accountability in sales is creating the best agents of change a company could ask for. Nothing says accountability like a quota — yet, more importantly, nothing says long-term viability like listening to the customer’s voice. The birth of a salesman starts with accepting, and not running from, accountability. Ironically, the very concept many managers run away from is exactly what could grow — and, in some cases, save — their companies.

Reflecting on recent trends in selling reminded me of an excellent book by Walter Friedman titled Birth of a Salesman: The Transformation of Selling in America, published by Harvard University Press. This is one of the better books that encapsulate the progression of sales from purely hawking goods to becoming a trusted advisor, and it points out the lessons learned.

After reading through this book and spending some time with some great salespeople this week, I’ve come to the following conclusions about how the sales process relates to what’s happening in 2006:

    1. Resilience in relationships. It’s hard work to get up and dust yourself off after losing a deal you’ve worked on for months, or make the effort to reach out to customers who have not bought in many months or years to make sure they don’t defect to a competitor. The more complex the service, software or product, the higher the resilience required.

    2. Strategic thinking over tactical busy-ness. What’s most critical for salespeople is to make a lasting contribution to their customers’ strategies and initiatives — not simply sell them more services or products. To do this, salespeople need to be strategic thinkers and look at clients not just in terms of sales cycles that last months, but as relationships that will hopefully last for years. Churn happens when companies take their focus off their installed base to concentrate all their efforts on new accounts, and existing customers begin to look elsewhere.

    3. Credibility in communicating. This translates into aggressive listening and educating prospects about what alternatives there are for them to accomplish their goals and strategies. Quite frankly, even if this means nothing gets sold, but the customers’ pain is eliminated and its goals are achieved, then the sales cycle was a success. Why? Because the promise of serving customers was fulfilled. Only after creating credibility and trust can selling be successful.

    4. Trusted advisors outsell merchants of fear. The toughest job in sales is trying to continually identify customer pain points and unmet needs. Selling on fear kills communication. However, meeting needs and fulfilling goals — even if there is little or no short-term gain — creates credibility, and over time can deliver even greater revenue gains.

    5. Entrepreneurial sense of urgency. An energetic sales team keeps the company’s heart beating. An urgent drive to realize opportunities can be a wake-up call that has a galvanizing effect on the the entire company. This is critical for keeping a company relevant to its customers. This entrepreneurial sense of urgency is at the center of how the sales effort can bring change — spurred by listening to the voice of the customer — into an organization.

    6. Passionate about fighting for their customers’ needs. Salespeople get a bad rap in most companies for pushing hard to please a client, but if they weren’t taking the hard-driving approach, competitors’ sales reps would be doing just that — and most likely are, especially on the largest deals in the pipeline. It’s time for more managers, directors, vice presidents and even CEOs to wake up and realize that the passion salespeople express in striving to get what their customers need is something everyone else in the company should emulate. As one CEO once said to me, “Everybody sells.” This is so true — and everybody serves the sales force in the companies that are holding their own relative to the competition.

It’s been my experience that when in doubt, it’s always best to serve the sales force, because they are a great conduit for getting a handle on what’s happening with prospects and customers. Balancing salepeoples’ insights along with many other sources of information to define pricing, product direction, and service programs is a given; no single department has all the answers.

Yet sales professionals have entered an era of hyper-accountability that is directly responsible for the birth of a new, company-transforming salesperson. The best salespeople draw on an inward intensity and project an outward focus that those dodging accountability would do well to imitate.


Louis Columbus, a CRM Buyer columnist, is a member of the Cincom Manufacturing Business Solutions Team and a former senior analyst with AMR Research. He has worked with enterprise clients on defining solutions to their channel management, order management and service lifecycle management strategies. Mr. Columbus also teaches graduate-level international business and marketing courses at Webster-Loyola Marymount University and University of California, Irvine. He is the author of fifteen books on technology and two books on analyst relations. His book, Getting Results from your Analyst Relations Strategies, can be downloaded for free.


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